The frustration was written all over the Orlando Magic’s faces.
They had watched their 17-point lead slowly whittled down as the Miami Heat increased the physicality and focus on offense. The Magic defense that was swarming and creating turnovers was drying up, especially after the team reloaded with its starters.
The Magic had a 10-point lead with 6:41 left when Jalen Suggs stole an outlet pass from Bam Adebayo and forwarded it to Bol Bol alone under the basket for a big dunk. They had a nine-point lead with 2:34 left when Markelle Fultz hit a jumper.
This should have been an easy coast to a victory. All the team needed to do was get a stop, dig in and execute offensively. Just one thing going their way could have led to a win. A made shot, a stop or, yes, a foul call going their way.
Instead, in those final 2:34, the Heat made four straight shots, they got stops on four of five possessions, a Paolo Banchero leaner the only score the Magic had in those final minutes.
Banchero’s frustration was clear even on that make. He looked to the officials asking where the foul was as he had to pivot and turn through contact to hit the tough leaner. The point though was the Heat made nothing easy. And the Magic left the game in the balance.
The Orlando Magic can clearly feel how close the team is to breaking through and making a postseason run. But that step is still frustratingly far as the team falls back into similar patterns.
Yes, Orlando fans and players have every right to be upset with two fairly clear missed calls down the stretch. The most egregious came on an offensive rebound where Wendell Carter dug out a board and had the ball knocked away from him by Bam Adebayo. Markelle Fultz went for the loose ball but ran into Gabe Vincent sending Vincent to the line for the game-tying free throws.
The other call is more debatable but still clear as day. Paolo Banchero got a great look to win the game in regulation but missed a layup after taking some contact from Bam Adebayo.
A clearly rattled Magic team had very little left in overtime. They stuck with a starting group that struggled to close the game and fell to the Heat 107-103 — for good measure a potential three-point play from Markelle Fultz was waved off on a charge where Max Strus was clearly still moving although it looked like a charge in real-time.
That just added to the frustration of a frustrating night and a frustrating loss. This is the loss that shows how promising and close this Magic team is to its postseason goals, but also how much further the team has to go.
The Magic are knocking on the door of fighting and competing for a postseason spot. Yet, the same problems keep arising from the youthful growing pains of trying to win close games to the struggling under the pressure of needing a basket and needing a stop.
In many ways, this is the same story over again for the Magic.
"“It’s kind of frustrating when we understand what we need to do to win and we keep making some of the same mistakes and you come up short,” Markelle Fultz said after Saturday’s game. “It’s just the passion that you have in the game and how bad you want to win and how bad we want to be successful. I think tonight you see the passion and frustration of everything. The way we played, the mistakes we made, the way we felt the game was going and how we fumbled the game in certain situations.”"
Ultimately the game comes down to the team’s ability to execute and make shots. It comes down to the team’s ability to dig out stops and grind their way to wins when the offense is not working.
This is the issue with the team’s rigidity on offense.
Orlando is hyper-reliant on getting to the basket and to the foul line. The Magic are not an effective 3-point shooting team for sure and not even a great mid-range shooting team — the team is 20th in the league in mid-range field goal percentage (40.7 percent) and 10th in attempts (11.8 per game).
And that inevitably exposes them to the whims of the officials.
The Magic scored 46 points in the paint on 23-for-47 shooting, outscoring the Heat by four points but the Heat made 21 of 32 shots in the paint). Orlando, despite the complaints about the officiating, had the same number of free throws as Miami at 23.
All Orlando could do to try to free up some offense is try to slam themselves into the paint more, hoping to get to the foul line or kick out. And the team’s relative inexperience and lack of shooting makes it harder to trust the kick-out pass will work.
"“These are extremely valuable lessons for our guys to go into these situations,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday’s game. “Obviously walking into overtime understanding we have to do the little things. Our guys stayed locked in for the most part and stayed the course regardless of what was happening in the game, regardless of how physical it was on both sides of the ball. But we did a great job of keeping our poise for the most part and attacking the basket like we should have down the stretch.”"
Mosley said the team will have to continue to earn officials’ respect. It is part of the growth and learning adjusting to how officials are calling games. As much as officiating should not be a story or an excuse, it was one in this game.
Maybe that is the problem because the Magic have accustomed to getting to the line more. But it is the inability to adjust to how the game is being called and find other ways to attack and score that is getting the team in trouble.
That frustration grew as the game got tighter. And it showed in the team’s inability to execute down the stretch. The ball stuck on one side of the floor and the team lost its pace.
It was far from the free, easy and energetic play that helped the team stake a 17-point lead.
Orlando was the aggressor for much of the game getting after Miami with its defense and scrambling with energy throughout. There was nothing for the officials to call because of how locked in Orlando was.
The Magic forced 20 total turnovers for 24 points including seven in the first quarter alone to build a 10-point lead. The best moments in the game often featured Jalen Suggs flying around the court and getting deflections and steals. His energy has been infectious recently and a key to the Magic’s bench revival.
"“I think we just come in and try to play hard and take on the challenge of being much better than the other team’s second unit,” Jalen Suggs said after Saturday’s loss. “We just continue to come in and do our job. I think that just comes down to being a good teammate, coming off the bench, playing hard, doing the little things, playing together and giving our guys a blow to start the game off and give them some cushion when they come back into the game. We have good chemistry together. It shows when we play and the ball pops and we help each other on defense and fly around.”"
The Magic’s bench helped stake the lead time and time again. But the starters could not finish as their shooting struggles continue.
The Magic are talented enough and close enough to the postseason chase to feel this tension and the pressure to win. Mosley has largely kept his focus on the big picture and on development. He is fine letting Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner learn through failure when it arises. He has focused on building continuity with playing groups.
But everyone has to understand how the game flows and adjusts. They have to keep their focus when they face adversity and solve some of these complex problems — and the Heat’s defense is certainly a complex problem.
The officiating was bad. The Last Two Minute report will likely confirm this. And in a game with so many close calls that did not go the Magic’s way, it likely did cost them. And in a tight postseason chase, this is the kind of game that the Magic will certainly regret.
But it also came down to the Magic’s inability to do the things they need to do and their inability to adjust — both the players and the coach — to find ways to score and execute.
Orlando lost its focus and communication defensively too often, allowing a poor-shooting Miami team one too many offensive rebounds, one too many opportunities off turnovers and one too many 3-point shots.
Butler is one of the best clutch player sin the league and he showed it again because the Magic gave him the chance.
"“Just to fall short on that again against a team in our home state and a team that is gritty and tough and talks trash, you want to answer that back,” Jalen Suggs said after Saturday’s game. “You want to escape those games with wins and really just prove ourselves. We feel how close we are. Realistically we are in the picture of everything. But we need wins like this to go in our favor and close these games out. Falling short of that, we feel we are letting ourselves down.”"
Orlando is knocking on the door of postseason experience and the playoff chase. That time is nearly here if it is not here already. The Magic are close to putting all those pieces together.
But it will take leveling up again and being looser with the script to get over that hump fully and finally.